From European Gold to letting go of the dream
In September 2011, I had just finished my A-Levels with the not so distant dream of securing a scholarship to compete in the NCAA collegiate system. But first, I wanted to take a year out to train as a full-time athlete before deciding which college to sign for.
For years, I had been in awe of the greatness of Kenyan athletes, so I took the opportunity to embark on a 3-month trip to train alongside these record-breakers on their home turf. Never before had I trained as hard as I did over these few months. A typical week’s training volume exceeded 100 miles, incorporating three regular hard interval sessions and a 15+ mile long run. This unbelievable experience at just 18-years old provided me with an incredible insight into the harsh training regimes, diets and philosophy adopted by the Kenyans.
The physiological and psychological benefits from this trip played an undoubtedly huge part in my success upon returning to the UK. I qualified for the European Junior XC championships with ease, where I surpassed all expectations by earning an individual silver medal and contributing to a team gold. Throughout this period my parents, coach, friends and family had shown enormous support, further reinforcing my beliefs and dreams that I could achieve more great things in this sport in the future.
My European medals, among other achievements, secured me a scholarship to the highly prestigious, internationally renowned, University of Oregon - the first British athlete to gain one in over 30 years. Before flying out to join the team, I trained as hard as possible to be in the best shape of my life when I arrived. Based on my performance over the first academic year, the school could increase my support to a full scholarship, which increased my determination to prove myself.
I carried on training in the UK as if I were still in Kenya, taking everything I had learned and transposing it onto my life in London. I remember running the first 15 miles of the infamously gruelling Finchley 20, averaging 5.15/mi pace, knowing I could have finished the rest of the race with ease. My confidence was sky-high in the knowledge I was training more than ever. The weekly emails and encouraging phone calls I received from the Oregon coaches only served to reinforce my confidence, enthusiasm, and identity as a distance athlete.
I couldn’t wait to get started until…
BANG! I picked up a femoral neck stress fracture just a couple weeks before I was due to fly out to Eugene. I knew I was in trouble. My hip was killing me; I had a visible lump at the fracture site and my entire body felt brittle from months of maltreatment. My punishingly high-training volume and unbelievably inadequate diet had finally taken its toll.
I flew to Oregon with my parents in tow. The coaches had expected me to jump straight into their training programme and racing schedule, and my inability to run left me feeling utterly worthless. I didn’t tell the coaches right away; I really didn’t want to let them and the team down so soon. Against my better judgement, I repeatedly tried to run, making the situation considerably worse with every attempt. I would go to sleep with a throbbing pain in my hip, praying that it wasn’t anything too serious and that it would eventually heal with minimal time-out from training. At 18-years old, this was my first serious injury.
I finally decided to stop running and rest. Eventually an MRI and a DEXA scan confirmed the stress fracture, and more alarmingly, the underlying cause of extremely low bone density. Being sidelined from training and racing immediately made me feel distanced from the team and coaching staff. Since I had joined the squad towards the end of the first academic year, I found it especially difficult to make friends and not being able to run left me feeling increasingly socially isolated. It was becoming apparent that the other athletes and coaches were struggling to respect me as an athlete worthy of a full-scholarship. Even my own identity as an athlete was fading fast.
I did find some comfort in cross-training and strength training was at least some way of maintaining fitness, but I was constantly fixated on wanting my injury to heal rapidly. And it didn’t.
Whilst the squad, full of elite athletes, were out there winning major races on the NCAA circuit, I felt more and more like a joke. Despite months of ‘being part of the team’ I had still made no close friends. The coaching staff had no time or patience for me, instead diverting their full attention to the healthy athletes raring to go.
In a desperate attempt to regain my rapidly fading athlete status, I rushed my recovery process. I cross-trained obsessively and as hard as possible with little regard for anything else in my life. I failed all my classes and to make matters worse, as the fall cross-country season came around again, I found I had picked up a second stress fracture just as the previous one had healed – I knew I was finished.
Cross Country was my specialty. I was the European Junior silver medallist, one of the best in GB and arguably one of the best in Europe for my age group. But in America, I was a nobody. In December 2012 I quit Oregon and was on the next flight back to Heathrow - not before picking up yet another stress fracture (my third in 9-months) in my tibia.
Fast-forward 10 years and I am healthy, strong and enjoying life with a fantastic group of friends, training partners, coach and family around me. I also run a rapidly growing business called AthleteMannies that keeps me on my toes. I may not be competing any more but I have found meaning and success in other aspects of my life.
The reasons I wanted to share my story are, for me, two fold:
To show the importance of identity and self-worth in athletes
To help other young athletes to learn from some of the mistakes I made
Injuries are tough and the loss of identity and self-worth that can accompany them can seriously impact on our health and wellbeing. A loss of identity is belittling and destructive, yet regularly neglected in conversations about injury and rehabilitation. We must take care and educate ourselves better on how to cope with this psychological burden when we and other young athletes get injured.
Some tips I would like to share if you, or other young athletes you know experience a feeling of loss surrounding injury:
Cross training (cycling, cross-trainer, rowing etc…) helps massively to keep fit and to stay focused. Set achievable goals and keep it fun
Spend time working on other skills, like building strength and flexibility
Keep in touch with teammates and maintain a similar routine (e.g. cycling alongside training partners to keep them motivated or holding the stopwatch at the track
Keep talking to your coach. Just because you're injured it doesn’t mean your coach can’t help support you, physically and mentally
Discover new hobbies interests to keep your mind busy
Stay positive! You won’t be injured forever and if you're able to recover fully first time round, you'll be back running much sooner than you think
By Richard Goodman Project RED-S Ambassador